The very idea of an aged and matured – yes, just like port – Rupert Everett acting Oscar Wilde in a play about the Victorian dramatist’s tragic later years, is enough on its own to induce excitement. Couple this with congratulatory early reviews of the man’s performance in pre-West End shows and we have the promise of ‘Everett as Wilde’ gaining iconic status.
However, it is of course rare – or even impossible – that an actor can produce such gold dust in amongst a cast of rubble. In this instance Everett forms the centre section of a triptych. On his left is the mesmerizing Narcissus, Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas as played by the kitten-hipped Freddie Fox and on his right is the infallible Robbie Ross, played by Cal Macaninch who, through his love for Wilde, devotes his life to preventing Wilde precipitating his own downfall.
Playing the role of Ross opposite Everett’s Wilde is analogous to actually being Ross in comparison to Wilde. The Canadian critic’s ashes now share Wilde’s Parisian tomb he initiated the construction of, yet for those without the requisite level of Wildean mania, he remains relatively unknown. Potentially this could make Ross a marginally boring character. More worryingly, if he were to be acted wrongly suggestions of sycophancy could creep in.
On the opening night in Bath, Macnaninch’s performance certainly avoids the latter, mainly through his constant desire to do what is best for Wilde and not allow for short-term gratification. Ross, Macaninch says, is a “Pretty satisfying character to play. I don’t think he is just ‘nice’. I don’t play ‘nice’!” The gravity of the character lies with him having a constant objective, and the drama this creates. Ross also, as Wilde’s first male lover, has issues of jealousy directed towards the flippant and misguided Bosie. More than any other aspect of the play, this tension between the steadfast Ross, the muddled Wilde and the flighty Bosie creates the universalizing facet of the story. Instead of being solely about homosexuality in Victorian Britain, it becomes about the fatalistic choices people make between the ones they should love and the ones they, sometimes unfortunately, do.
Macaninch loses his own Scots voice to play the role with in RP English, despite Ross actually having a Canadian accent. For historical purists this may be puzzling, but despite Macaninch originally training with a Canadian voice coach, play write David Hare felt the audience would be more disconcerted by the unexplained appearance of a North American in the play, than a few historians would be by the change in vowels. One interesting fact that Macaninch tells me is that Ross developed the accent solely from his mother and in fact lived in England from a very early age. He tells me this in the kind of quickened voice academics save for their specialist subject and I get the impression there are many more of these geeky tidbits saved in his brain from his reading of two biographies on Ross before taking the role.
Two other subjects equally excite him: Wilde and Everett. He is currently reading The Picture of Dorian Gray and, despite more frequently quoting Hare as Wilde, admits, “The urge is to underline every sentence, every quote. You say ‘OH! I’m going to remember that!’ but by tomorrow you have forgotten that and found other ones. He is just a genius.”
Whilst issuing notes of caution: “I don’t want to talk about awards and things” he describes Everett’s performance as “extraordinary”. His co-star Freddie Fox and him are “very proud” of the man they revolve around. Everett and himself, he tells me, met years ago working as extras in Glasgow before Everett went off to be a movie star. “It is wonderful to be reunited with him,” says Macaninch, suggesting continually that whilst he apparently cannot act ‘nice’, he certainly radiates the quality in real life.
Online version can be found here: http://issuu.com/epigrampaper/docs/issue_254